Posted by: njrigg | October 31, 2010

GRIEF TAKES THE HOLIDAYS: Sudden Death Grief and Trauma Can Compound Everything


Sudden Death Grief and Trauma Can Compound Everything

By Nancy J. Rigg

Halloween is here.  Many homes in my quiet residential neighborhood in California are decorated with Jack O’Lanterns, tombstones, howling ghosts, yellow “police tape,” and other haunting and deathly images of the season.  But an hour ago, the streets were suddenly filled with the sounds of real sirens howling and real police cars, fire trucks and ambulances descending on a scene of real tragedy.

A neighbor boy, who was riding a motor bike up and down our side street, was hit by a car.  He was not wearing a protective helmet.  I’m not sure he was even old enough to be a licensed driver.  He may have just been a kid goofing around with other kids on a sunny autumn afternoon.  But in an instant, he, his friends, his family, and responding emergency workers were flung into a very real struggle for survival.

Anyone who has been involved in a drowning accident knows how this kind of traumatizing scenario can play out.  There is hope, against all odds, for a miracle, as you stand vigil and pray.  If your loved one has been transported to the hospital, doctors and nurses work feverishly.  If your loved one has been swept away and is missing, a prolonged search may ensue, with family members languishing in a kind of terrible limbo of not knowing.

While the rest of the world whirls along, clueless about your plight, it soon becomes clear that there may not be any last-minute miracles of emergency medicine, rescue and resuscitation, or lucky second chances.  Your loved one has succumbed to his or her injuries in hospital, or been recovered from a river, lake, pond, or the ocean, or perhaps he or she has been declared “missing and presumed dead,” leaving a dreadful question mark of grief and uncertainty hanging in the air.  It is now time to organize a memorial service and face a bleak future in a world that has been turned totally upside down.  Nothing will ever be the same again, including holidays and other special occasions.


After the emergency sirens fall silent, only the keening sound of sorrow fills the cool, fall air.  How are we ever to endure any day again, let alone enjoy the holidays, in the shadow of sudden death grief and trauma?

For those who have recently lost a young child, Halloween may represent the deeply painful launch of the long, traditional holiday season, with vivid memories of special costumes being worn at this time last year, Thanksgiving feasts with the whole family laughing and smiling, and Christmas gatherings untarnished by mourning.

For those who have lost a loved one of any age to drowning, or some other terrible aquatic accident – surfing, scuba, boating – with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, other special holidays, and the New Year looming ahead, it is as though time itself is seeking to separate us further from our dear ones.

Even in large and supportive families, grief can be isolating.  Each family member faces the loss individually and has separate wants and needs.  Men are expected, unfairly it seems, to somehow keep the family intact, continue to earn a living, deal with the business of functioning everyday, and anticipate the needs of their grieving wives and children.  Their own feelings may end up suppressed of necessity, which is why men in particular may need to find not only the time, but some special way to grieve and honor their heartache during the holidays.

Parents who have lost an only child, including divorced and single parents, may find themselves feeling particularly bereft, isolated, and lonely.  Older parents may view the future, with the loss of their sole, dependable, loving child, very dimly.  And grandparents may find themselves trying to lend support to their grieving children and grandchildren, while also balancing out the holiday needs of the extended family as a whole, and coping with their own sense of loss and bewilderment.

Those who are widowed may also feel extremely isolated and lonely, regardless of whether or not they have children or grandchildren.  The loss of our “everyday family” – a spouse, a special, adult child, who visits with us daily, or calls us frequently to check in – is a loss with many complex layers, made all the more challenging with the holidays.

“Unmarried” widows and widowers, who have lost their partners in life, or those to whom they are affianced, may find themselves at a loss for support.  They are neither married legally, nor widowed legally.  And although they have all the heartache and many of the responsibilities of being widowed, sympathy, support and understanding in the wider everyday world may be hard to come by.

Adults who have lost a sibling can also find themselves on the weak end of the grief support chain.  Their grieving parents may be so overwhelmed and lost in their own sorrow that they are unable to comfort, or even really appreciate the presence of their other, surviving children and grandchildren, at least initially.

Single, unmarried, adult children, who lose one or both parents, or their only sibling, may find themselves mired in deep holiday isolation, with no extended family members nearby.  Although some solitude while grieving is normal, too much isolation can become unhealthy.

And the trauma associated with sudden death can compound everything, particularly for those whose loved ones die at or near Christmas or on another holiday.  Families may be in deep shock.  Sights and sounds related to the holiday may rekindle a sense of anxiety and distress.  It may be difficult to breathe, get out of bed, and take care of basic needs, let alone make meaningful plans for Christmas or Thanksgiving.  And we may feel very guilty about celebrating anything, now that our loved ones can no longer join us at the holiday table.


We may really want to withdraw behind closed doors and hide for the rest of the year, emerging only when the hubbub and jolly celebrations have subsided.  But it’s difficult to remove ourselves entirely from holiday reminders.  The world is brimming with the bright colors of autumn.  Images of pumpkins and ghoulish costumes are everywhere.  Stores are infused with the smell of cinnamon and candy.  And even before the Halloween masks are retired for the year, Thanksgiving turkeys, the redolent smell of sage and onion stuffing, and jolly old elves decked out in red and green, smelling of balsam fir, are shimmering before us in store displays, on television, in newspapers, magazines, and endless holiday catalogs.

While the prospect of marking the holidays may be completely overwhelming and anxiety provoking for those who are new to grief, it can also be distressing for anyone missing a special loved one who has drowned.  The holidays seem to increase our sense of yearning and fill our hearts with so many reminders of happier times gone by.  Memories of joyful holidays in the past may be too painful to bear, accentuating the bleakness of life now, rather than offering a sense of solace and comfort.

As time lumbers forward and we tick off days on the calendar, we may be able to find some way not just to endure the holidays, but to relate to them in a new and meaningful way, in remembrance of our loved ones who are now gone.  It may be possible to allow the holidays to be a time of honoring those who have died, even if memories are painful.

Grief experts recommend that we take things one day at a time and try to make a careful plan for the holidays, even if it means turning down invitations to attend the usual cheery celebrations and announcing to one and all that we are slamming the front door on anyone wearing a Santa Claus suit.  Planning can help us sort out a strategy for dealing with friends and family members who think they know what is “best” for us.  Planning also allows us to be mindful, to involve all immediate family members in the decision-making process, including young children, who often feel left out, conflicted and confused, even as they secretly hope for a special Christmas present.


Faith can offer solace and comfort for those who are newly bereaved, although sudden death can also be a time of great inner conflict and bewilderment.  If a place of worship is a true sanctuary for our sorrow, the holidays may offer many opportunities to deepen our faith and strengthen a sense of connection with our loved ones, even in death.

The world is diverse, and many cultures and religions coexist.  Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and non-believers alike may find the dominant Judeo-Christian holidays in Western countries to be extremely bothersome, if not outright distressing, heightening a sense of loss and isolation in a time of mourning.

Regardless of whether or not we are religious, it may be helpful to participate in a special remembrance ceremony, like the annual Compassionate Friends (TCF) World Candle Lighting Service, a community Christmas tree lighting, or other special remembrance event.

According to the their website, “The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting unites family and friends around the globe in lighting candles for one hour to honor and remember children who have died at any age from any cause.”  As candles are lit at 7 PM, local time – this year on December 8, 2013 – a virtual wave of light is created worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of participants commemorating and honoring the memory of children, grandchildren and siblings “in a way that transcends all ethnic, cultural, religious, and political boundaries.”

For some families, becoming involved in productive social service, doing something active – helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house, serving a Thanksgiving meal at a soup kitchen, or donating Christmas gifts to the children’s ward at the hospital in memory of a loved one – can be a meaningful way to remember a loved one.

Even with the best laid plans, for those who are new to grief, as well as anyone for whom the holidays were once a shining time of joy with a loved one who is now gone, tears and sorrow may be the main dish served this year.

And that is okay.


Allow time to grieve.

Allow time for quiet reflection.

Cry if you need to.

Make room for some laughter, because that’s okay, too.

Make room for the healing arts: music, theatre, dance, storytelling

Allow time for faith, if that gives you comfort.

Communicate with other family members to find out what their needs are, especially younger children who have lost a sibling.

Communicate your own needs with your immediate family and your circle of friends and other, extended family members.

Planning with care is preferable to letting the holidays sneak up and overwhelm everyone.  No one knows “what’s best” for you, except you!

If you really can’t stand the idea of attending a big Thanksgiving dinner or holiday celebration, that is fine!  Do what feels right when it feels right.

And know that we are here for you in the Drowning Support Network.

Compassionate Friends World Candle Lighting Service- December 13, 2015

(C) 2010, all rights reserved



  1. This is such wonderful, helpful information! That tricky time of year has indeed begun. Thank you Nancy x

  2. Nancy, this insightful and well expressed piece with its broad encompassing of so many holiday dates will help many people, not just those who are new to grief.

    It will also help those who are around those families who are trying to cope with the round of holidays that starts with halloween, and certainly in the UK seems to be the focus all through our shorter winter days. They were already playing Christmas carols in our local supermarket today, and they have a Christmas tree up too:) it is a bit much to take …..

  3. nancy, you have been helping me thru these tough times and this article i hope finds its way to all the other people out there that hurt as much as i do and gives them some kind of light to help them along the terrible grief they may face losing someone dear.

  4. Nancy, this is such a wonderfully helpful article. It seems to cover all who are connected to a loss and addresses sensitively the different values and beliefs of people. A timely reminder for all to look after ourselves – and others – at this time of year. Thank you.

  5. What a wonderful passage Nancy, thank you for sharing with me on this hard day as we remember Mum’s birthday. The grief is hard to bear. xxxx

  6. hi Nancy, long time… we are still suffering the effects of our grandson’s death as his momma has finally decided to blame his daddy, our son, for the death of their child, and has left him. Its just more grief… more pain, more loss. When will this ever end?

    • Oh, Michelle, I am so sorry to hear about the on-going pain…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: